Prison Hulks littered British Waterways…

Yesterdays post about the prison hulks sitting in New York harbour made me think about the hulks that littered our own waterways in the mid C19th.

    • In the early 1840’s 3,000 prisoners were held inside these ugly hulks. Mainly at Portsmouth, Deptford and Woolwich.
    • The prison system of the C18th were privately run and had little to do with reform or rehabilitation, in fact many of our criminals were either deported or killed.
    • Once it became apparent that America, in particular, would no longer accept our ‘undesirables’, the British had a problem.
    • Crime was rising and it was imperative to find somewhere to place convicts.
    • Old men-of-war ships were used, they were moored close to shore and the men were put to work as chain gangs in a number of ways.
    • Australia was adopted as the destination  when the Americans would no longer accept our deportations.
    • Those sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, Australia,  found themselves holed up in a prison hulk.
    • There are literary references in many works of the period and notably central to the plot in Great Expectations is the incarceration of Abel Magwitch.  Charles Dickens account of his attempted escape from the hulk moored on the Thames Estuary gives a dark picture of the brutal conditions and treatment of prisoners. In reality they were moored on the Medway Estuary.
    • Prisoners of War were also held on the hulks, in Portsmouth the artist Ambroise Louis Garneray was held for 8 years, remarkably he survived and was released in 1814.

Conditions on board these hulks was dreadful.

Prison Hulk York

    • 1 in 4 of the inmates died of a myriad of diseases including dysentry, scurvy and typhus.  Smallpox was also rampant.
    • In 1842 the Government decided that every convicted prisoner should be transported when a period of confinement in a land based prison had been served
    • As more and more land based prisons were built, the prison hulks fell into disuse.
    • Quite recently as prison numbers have peaked in the UK the modern use of prison ships has again reared its ugly head…


To find out the names of inmates in prison hulks connect with the National Archive and the UK Prison Hulks and Letters books 1802-1849 on


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